(This story is sponsored by Upper Bench Winery & Creamery.)
On a rare occasion, a romantic fairy tale can occur in real life. And some might say that Gavin and Shana Miller, founders and owners of Upper Bench Winery & Creamery, were destined to be together. He is from the U.K. and she is from Nova Scotia, but the pair met rather serendipitously in Penticton while Gavin was on a much needed vacation with a friend. It took only two weeks for Gavin and Shana to fall madly in love.
“I had to go back to England and as soon as I did, I booked a flight out for Christmas,” says Gavin. “In the meantime, we found out we were expecting our first child. So I flew back out and we got married.”
Penticton would always be special to them and after a year and a half of living together in London, they returned to the place where their love story began. That was 23 years ago. These days, they run Upper Bench, a boutique winery and artisan creamery in the Okanagan Valley.
While making award-winning wines was not always part of Gavin’s plan, he found himself inspired by the region’s burgeoning industry and so he went back to school to learn viticulture. From there, he worked his way from the vineyards to the cellars, before making wines for some of the most established names in the area.
Meanwhile Shana, with their two daughters in school, was given the opportunity to work in Poplar Grove’s creamery.
“I’d never made cheese and I thought it would be something cool to do,” says Shana. “And I was hooked after the first day!”
And just like her relationship with Gavin, her love affair with cheese would only flourish. The couple long hoped of combining their passions and early in 2011 their dream became a reality when they found the nine-acre Upper Bench property and were able to invest with their partners, the Nystroms.
The seven-varietal, naturally farmed, and hand-tended vineyard provides a unique environment, which helps Gavin to produce distinct and special wines.
“I like the soils around Penticton,” says Gavin. “It’s mostly glacial tilt and volcanic rock so it’s very unusual. I think Lake Chelan in Washington is the only other place in the world where they grow wine on soil like this.”
It’s for this reason that he likes to describe himself as a minimalist winemaker, meaning that he uses as little intervention as possible to really allow the fruit and the unique characteristics of the region to shine through.
“Like everything else these days you can put a lot of additives, enzymes, and enhancements,” he says. “I don’t like that. I like to use the basics. We try with everything to get it going on wild yeast so that we don’t have to add cultured yeast to anything. Basically, I want to produce great fruit and let it make its own wine.”
Gavin now has 14 wines in Upper Bench’s flight to satisfy every taste from a smooth Cabernet Sauvignon to a crisp Pinot Blanc, as well as the winery’s blend, Altitude.
And Shana continues to create her highly sought-after, handcrafted, artisan cheeses on-site. One of the benefits of owning their own business—in addition to husband and wife lunches on the Upper Bench patio—is having the creative freedom to do what they want. Shana is always experimenting and making new cheeses from her delectable Bries to her famous King Cole blue.
Supported by B.C.’s Buy Local program, collaboration is at the core of everything the pair does at Upper Bench.
“We did a wash rind with a local beer. And we’re using an Elephant Island cherry port for the cheese this year,” says Shana. “The winemakers on the bench are a tight community. We stick together.”
Everything produced at Upper Bench is made in small batches and this is very deliberate.
“We are the home of Canada’s only wine and cheese club so I don’t want the cheese everywhere. I want it to be special,” she says.
The Curds & Corks Club delivers six bottles of wine and three pieces of perfectly paired cheese quarterly for $190. As a member you can enjoy lots of great perks like exclusive access to pre-released, past vintages, and members-only cheese.
“You’re going to get cheeses that you’ll never get anywhere else,” adds Shana. “For Christmas this year we took one of our cheeses and we soaked it in wine. So they’re getting a tipsy cheese for Christmas. And another is the cacao nibs and port-infused blue cheese. We have a lot of fun!”
As a member of the club, you receive a complimentary wine and cheese tasting for you and three friends when you go to Upper Bench, which is open year-round. And the Millers share an inside tip that visiting during the off-season can be the best time to meet the makers one-on-one and avoid the crowds you’d see in July and August.
And while it’s well worth the trip to see the winery in-person, one of the benefits of the website is that you can purchase all the fabulous wine and cheese online, anytime. Upper Bench delivers all over the country, meaning your order will be delivered within 24 hours directly to your door. There are also gift baskets available, which would be a great way of checking off a few people on your list this Christmas.
After all, you won’t find a more perfect pair than cheese and wine. Except, maybe, Gavin and Shana of Upper Bench.
To learn more about Upper Bench or to become a member Curds & Corks Club visit the website.